Aristotelian Realism

by John D. Allee, FCoS founder

[The author grants permission for individuals to post this Work on their websites, so long as nothing is altered.]

Similar to idealism, realism is also one of the oldest philosophies in western culture and its origin began with the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) in ancient Greece. Being a longtime star student of Plato, he elaborated on the idealist view of reality being based on ideas and not matter. He thought that a proper study of matter could lead to better and more distinct ideas.

After twenty years as a student and teacher at Plato's Academy, Aristotle opened his own school called the Lyceum wherein he developed his philosophical differences with Plato. Although he had his own views, the basis of Aristotelian realism is found within Plato's idealism. In these regards, Aristotle never broke free of his influence.

Like idealism, since its beginning, realism has had many proponents and interpretations. Aristotelian realism was the foundation started in secular Greek culture. Religious realism came about through Thomas Aquinas, who like Augustine, was heavily influenced by ancient Greek culture and combined his ideas with Christianity. This is known as the classical period. Modern and contemporary realism consists of scientific, natural and rational realism. Some philosophers of this later period include Francis Bacon, John Locke, Alfred Whitehead and Bertrand Russell.

Throughout its long varied history, realism has had a common theme, which is called the principle or thesis of independence. This theme holds that reality, knowledge and value exist independently of the human mind. This means that realism rejects the idealist view that only ideas are real. Matter exists even though there is no mind to perceive them (recall the classic question about the tree falling in the woods). To the realist, matter is certainly an independent reality; however, the realist also considers ideas to be part of the thesis.

Aristotelian realism is based on the principle that ideas (or forms) can exist without matter, but no matter can exist without form. Aristotle claimed that each piece of matter has universal and particular properties. For example, all people are different in their properties. We all have different shapes and sizes and no two are alike. We do all share something universal called "humanness." This universal quality is certainly real because it exists independently and regardless of any one person. Aristotle called this quality a universal form (idea or essence), which is a nonmaterial aspect of each single material object that relate to all other objects of that group.

Although form is nonmaterial, we realize it by examining existing material objects that are independent of us. Aristotle believed we should study and understand the reality of all things. He agreed with Plato on this position. They differed concerning the method of how to arrive at form. Aristotle believed one can get to form by studying material things and Plato believed it could be reached through reasoning, such as the dialectic.

In his second principle, Aristotle thought that the forms of things, the universal properties of objects, remain constant and never change, but that particular components do change. Individual humans change through growth and then die, but humanness would remain because universal forms are constant.

Aristotle and Plato agreed that form is constant and matter is always changing, but Aristotle believed that form was within particular matter and was even the motivating force of that matter. He thought that each object has a tiny "soul" or purpose in life. For instance, the purpose of a kitten is to become an adult cat. The purpose of a child would be to become an adolescent and finally an adult human.

Aristotle was not only a philosopher, but also a scientist. He believed there was a relationship between philosophy and science in which the study of one aids us in the study of the other. We can consider what physical properties make-up a cat (internal and external structure, color), however; these scientific questions naturally would lead us to asking deeper philosophical questions about a cat's origin, meaning and purpose. This process would lead us to discover its essence or form.

He thought the most important questions we can ask about things relate to their purposes. Unlike all other animals, the human animal can think abstractly and Aristotle believed the use of this unique ability is humanity's purpose. When we don't use our intelligence, we go against our true purpose in life.

In his third principle, Aristotle believed that design and order are present in the universe and thus, all things happen in an orderly fashion. As mentioned, the destiny of a kitten is to become a cat, a child to become a human adult. This process is unchangeable and constant like their universal forms. Thus, we can understand the universe by studying its purposes. However, Aristotle pointed out that humans have a free will to think. If we refuse to think or think poorly, then we go against our design and creation and suffer the consequences of wrong ideas, poor health and unhappiness.

Aristotle believed that the person who follows a true purpose leads a rational life of moderation and avoiding extremes. He believed in two extremes: the extreme of too little and of too much. If one drinks alcohol too much, one will become an alcoholic and suffer from the disease. However, the moderate thinking person avoids such self-destruction. Aristotle called this moderate path of avoiding the extremes, the Golden Mean.

This fourth principle is illustrated by his idea of the soul as an entity to be kept in balance. He believed there are three aspects of the soul called vegetative, animative and rational. Vegetative represents doing too little or inactivity. Animative means the other extreme of too much as in anger and hostility. However, when one uses reason to keep the other two aspects in harmony, they are following the true path of design and purpose.

The ideal state exists when all three aspects, vegetative (brass), silver (animal) and gold (rational) are in balance and harmony. Aristotle believed that a good education helps achieve the Golden Mean and therefore, promotes the harmony and balance of soul and body.

Aristotle believed that balance and order are central to the body and mind and also the universe. Concerning humans, he didn't view body and mind in opposition as Plato did; however, he viewed the body as the means by which data come to us through sense perception. Data from sense perception are organized by the reasoning mind. Universal principles are reached by mind from an examination of the particulars by sense perception and organizing the results into rational explanations. Thus, body and mind operate together in balance with their internal consistencies.

Unlike Plato who believed only in ideas, Aristotle didn't separate matter from form or its universal being. This is his fifth principle. He saw them as two fundamental aspects of the same thing. All matter has form and is in some stage of actualization. Formless matter doesn't exist. He tried to unite the world of matter with the world of forms. An example of this is his view of actuality and potentiality. Actuality is that which is complete or perfect which would be form. Potentiality refers to the capability of being actualized or gaining perfection and form. It's the union of form and matter that gives concrete reality to things.

This union is further illustrated by Aristotle's conception of the Four Causes:

1. The Material Cause: the matter from which something is made

2. The Formal Cause: the design that shapes the material object

3. The Efficient Cause: the agent that produces the object

4. The Final Cause: the direction toward which the object is tending

These causes can be attributed to building anything. One needs materials to build, a design or blueprint, the builder and finally the result.

The sixth principle is Aristotle's belief that matter is always in process and moving to some end. This is similar to the modern view of evolution and the idea of an open-ended universe. However, the difference between them is he saw this movement headed to a final end. The universe was open-ended to a certain point. He believed in an Ultimate Reality to be the power and creator that controlled the process of matter. This entity is the final end beyond all matter and form. In this regard, Aristotle's philosophy is as esoteric as Plato's. He saw this Ultimate Reality as a logical explanation for the order of the universe and as its principle organizer and operator.

To search for the structure of independent reality, Aristotle worked on logical processes. He used the dialectic to synthesize opposing ideas about truth. He also tried to refine it. The logical method he developed was the syllogism, which is a method for testing the truth of statements. Consider the following example: All music is good, classical is a form of music, therefore, classical music is good.

The syllogism is composed of a major premise, minor premise and conclusion. Aristotle created it to help us think more accurately by ordering statements about reality in a logical and systematic form.

This method is deductive which means it reaches truth from generalizations starting with the major premise. One problem with this method is that if either o f the premises is false, the conclusion may be false. The chance of an unproven general premise is greater than starting with a specific fact. The syllogism runs contrary to his insistence that we can better understand form (general principle) by studying specific material objects.

The final principle is his belief of the chief good, which is happiness. This depends on a virtuous and well-ordered soul. To achieve this, one has to develop habits of virtue that are shaped through the proper education. As mentioned, moderation through the Golden Mean is the key. This would result in assisting the state in producing good citizens with the proper social development. In Politics, Aristotle mentioned that a reciprocal relationship exists between the properly educated person and properly educated citizen.

The Aristotelian influence has been very important to Europeans and Americans. Several approaches to thought include studying nature systematically, using logical processes, reaching general truths through the study of particulars, organizing things into hierarchies and emphasizing the rational aspects of human nature.

Religious realism began with Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) when he first encountered the work of Aristotle while studying in Naples, Italy. This began a lifelong passion of attempting to join Aristotelian philosophy with Christian concepts.

Aquinas connected with the Aristotelian idea of human thinking being our highest good. He saw a parallel with the idea of Christian revelation and maintained that because we're children of God, our best thinking should agree with Christian tenants.

"Philosophical Foundations of Education" by Ozmon and Craver, page 53, states;

"Aristotle's ideas had a great impact on Christianity. In many respects, they have tended to secularize the church, as opposed to the monasticism engendered by the writings of Augustine. The ideas of Aristotle eventually were incorporated into Christianity and gave it a different philosophical base. Aquinas became the leading authority on Aristotle in the Middle Ages. He claimed that since God is pure reason; the universe is reason. By the use of it, we can know the truth of all things.

Aquinas believed that God created matter out of nothing and that he is the Final End who gives meaning and purpose to the universe. This Christian idea is similar to Aristotle's pagan view of an Ultimate Reality. In his work Summa Theologica, he used the rational approach suggested by Aristotle in dealing with religious questions. This monumental Christian work is considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be its leading philosophy."

Although Aquinas adopted reason in his work, he didn't subordinate revelation to it. He gave reason its proper place, but considered theology to be superior.

Aquinas agreed with Aristotle that we arrive at universals by a study of particulars. He accepted the thesis of independence and "form" as the principle characteristic of all being. He disagreed with him about the origin of the soul. He held that the soul is not derived from humanity's biological roots; rather, soul is a creation, immortal from God. Concerning education, he believed that only God could be the true Teacher. The only one who can directly touch the souls of men. Humans can only teach indirectly through guidance using signs and symbols. However, teaching is one of the greatest ways to serve humankind and is part of God's work in this world. Aquinas agreed with Augustine that humans are born with original sin and life is a testing ground, but disagreed about the idea of only knowing truth through faith. He believed God to be pure reason and that when He created the world; He made it possible for us to acquire true knowledge using reason. Faith can be applied to things we yet don't understand and reason is used to understand religious truths.

The Judeo-Christian belief of the immortal soul was central to the philosophy of Aquinas. He viewed the soul as having inner-knowledge that through reason would create perfection of a person. This was the major goal of education. The final step would be to reunite the soul with God.

Aquinas believed that human reality is not only spiritual, but also physical and natural. The path of the soul lies in the physical senses. This is an Aristotelian progression from a lower to a higher form.

Aquinas views on education are consistent with his philosophical views. Knowledge is attained through the senses and can lead to God. One should study matter and then progress to form. And one should use reason to reach God in the material world.

Finally, he felt the main agencies of education are the family and church. The state or organized society is much less important. The family and church have the responsibility to teach moral and divine law. The state should enforce such law and respect the privacy of home and church.

Modern realism developed out of the need to correct the failure of deductive reasoning (recall the syllogism).

Although classicists had developed the thesis that reality, knowledge and value can be discovered through studying particulars; the problem of working with a general major premise caused false conclusions. With the arrival of the scientific revolution, many philosophers applied themselves to the task of developing an adequate method of inductive reasoning.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) introduced a new approach to reasoning called induction. He urged his fellow citizens to stop using false deductive reasoning that relied on faith in old beliefs and past generalizations, which may or may not have been valid. He illustrated this concern with his four "idols" listed below.

1. Idols of The Den: We believe things from our own limited experience

2. Idol of The Tribe: We tend to believe what others believe

3. Idol of The Marketplace: Language is used to prevent understanding

4. Idol of The Theatre: Religion and philosophy distorts our objective judgment

Induction is the opposite of deduction. To reach a conclusion, we start with a collection of particular data, not unproven generalizations. This data is examined and found to be true or false based on present scientific or other kinds of facts. This method would create valid knowledge.

Bacon influenced John Locke (1632-1704). He attempted to continue his work by explaining how we develop knowledge. He agreed with Bacon that people we're hindered by false beliefs from the past and that they needed to rid themselves of the "idols."

Locke believed that there are no innate ideas. At birth, the mind is a blank sheet of paper, a tabula rasa, on which ideas are imprinted. All ideas come from experience through sensation and reflection.

Bacon had a significant influence on the twentieth century mostly American philosophy called pragmatism. It emphasizes the practical process (induction) to achieve the best possible result of a problem. Pragmatists were born from British, European and ancient Greek traditions. The character of the pragmatist is very American. They accept past traditional views, but also examine those views and apply them to present life. They also are open to create new ideas to the constantly changing world. These refreshing attitudes came about not through sealed minds of the Catholic Church, but through invention and progressive thinking in the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.

Moreover, many pragmatists were inspired by Bacon's inductive thinking as a basic scientific method and extended his approach to other fields such as economics, politics, psychology, ethics and education. The following three Americans were major contributors. John Dewey (1859-1952) popularized and systematized pragmatism in education. He believed there were no absolutes or universal truths as in idealism and realism, but that life was about human experiences and consequences. William James (1842-1910) had similar views in psychology. He felt truth in not absolute, but tested as viable in the real world. It doesn't belong to any idea; however, it's discovered through acting on ideas and their consequences. Truth is inseparable from experience. Charles Peirce (1839-1914) maintained that ideas are part of human conduct and cannot be separated from it. He also believed that personal experience tests the validity of true ideas.

Another progressive area that developed in modern realism was a psychological theory called behaviorism. This is a theory that regards objective behavior as the only subject for psychological study. It's related to the thesis of independence that resembles the behaviorist view that behavior is caused by environmental conditions. It differs from idealism in that its based on realism and behavior in the material world. Its connection to classic realism is with the idea of the meticulous study of particulars. The realist does this to reach form and the behaviorist does it to reach conclusions about behavior. Behaviorism is also based on materialism.

Important behaviorists include Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and B.F. Skinner (1904-1990). Pavlov was an early behaviorist who is famous for his conditioned reflex behavior using dogs. Conditioning illustrates how realism and behaviorism is related. Harvard University's Skinner walked between the science and social science. He was a disciplined scientist dealing with facts, but also a psychologist who wrestled with human behavior. He often criticized philosophical observations of psychology. He claimed that philosophers were trying to reach conclusions about human understanding through a priori generalizations rather than through controlled scientific experiments. This was a deductive approach, not inductive. Skinner was known as both paradoxical and controversial, but no one questions the breakthroughs he made in psychology and education.

Concerning my views about realism, I feel Aristotle was right concerning his views about all matter and living things having universal forms and their own purposes, but I feel these forms are like their properties and are not constant. "Humanness" has been changing since we were advanced Mammalian order primates about 55 million years ago. Is a near human like Neanderthal man the same as Homo sapiens (modern humans)? Everything is in a state of evolution, both physically and spiritually. The only thing that is constant in the universe is change itself (even if the world ended in a supernova, a new beginning or change would emerge). This is expressed through the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Even these facts of existence aren't constant as seen with the scientific advancement of birth control and living longer.

Christians often accuse scientists of "playing god," but then again, the majority of them have no problem adopting the latest advancements in their lives. This includes leaders like Augustine and Aquinas who despised pagans, but incorporated Greek philosophical ingenuity into their church dogmas. Actually, this view of forms contradicts what I said in my previous paper. I mentioned that the only absolute truths that exist are found within the objective universe or nature. I continue to alter my views on this (even math changes when new theories are introduced by physicists like Einstein). The only constant is change. Absolute truth doesn't exist. As said above, nature does have universal forms or laws, but as in science, it is always changing. Everything has a purpose, as Aristotle said, and that is to evolve through time. It is to develop into existing or future universal forms.

I feel Aristotle's views about matter were the next logical step to advance humanity beyond Plato's idealism. Although they were both searching for absolute forms, they had different methods of how to reach it. The world of ideas is very important, but we are not just thinking animals. It would be very limiting to not look beyond thoughts and consider your material surroundings for any meaning.

I like the practicality of the Golden Mean. Everyone must have balance of the two harmful extremes in life to achieve true happiness and to fulfill their destinies. Albeit, this would seem obvious, many people today indulge in unhealthy extremes. This observation by Aristotle is a landmark for self-awareness and preservation.

Finally, his syllogism was a great attempt at tackling logic, although I can see the limitation of its deductive reasoning. Assumptions and unproven subjective generalities are not foundations for future scientific progress.

Francis Bacon was a very big leap for reason. Why was there such slow progress from ancient Greece until the scientific revolution? Two reasons. The Christian religion with Aquinas assimilated realism like Augustine had with idealism. Human progress (or reason) is the opposite of Christianity! God is all about stagnancy and conformism. Jesus said, "you can't enter the kingdom of heaven without becoming a little child." The second is dualistic thinking. Aristotle and Aquinas thought this way with matter and form and the material and spiritual sides of humankind, respectively. Now, there's nothing wrong with discovering particular properties of something in nature and forms, but when one makes general unproven assumptions like the existence of God, then that ends all reason. Reason is based on scientific facts as Bacon realized. One can't discover universal truths in nature without reason and science. Dualism uses the deductive method, rather than the inductive one.

Concerning pragmatism, this was another logical step for Bacon's ideas of induction and the four "idols." In the twentieth century, inductive reasoning based on scientific evidence brought about practical thinking. Plato's idea of seeking the best result was the goal of pragmatism. Dualistic thinking was unpopular among philosophers and scientists, at least secular ones.

Pragmatists like Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey brought together pragmatism and the real world for which the philosophy was meant. This was the combination of reason and real world philosophy. They all discovered that true knowledge and absolutes are derived from life or the human experience. Thus, this proved Aristotle's thesis of independence was correct.

Behaviorism refocused realism with the combination of behavioral psychology, science and philosophy. Behaviorists such as Pavlov and Skinner advanced our understanding of individual and social behavior. They both believed in one-way conditioning of human and animal behavior. Skinner saw no distinction in education and conditioning. He viewed the act of repeated positive reinforcement would encourage good behavior.

Realism has greatly influenced American education in several ways. Aristotle's view of matter as forms gave us deductive reasoning which although it led to false ideas; it also resulted in Bacon's inductive reasoning. Induction was the basis for scientific facts, which led to the scientific revolution. From progressive science, induction was applied to many other fields such as psychology and economics. In the twentieth century, the spirit of science for examining particular matter to find facts gave us pragmatism, which with its emphasis on practicality and economy has laid the blueprint for American schools.

Realists emphasize basic factual data in school curriculum such as reading, writing and arithmetic. Technical knowledge takes prominence over more idealistic studies such as philosophy, literature and the arts. Since the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the race for the moon and the US second-place position in science caused resurgence in realism. This led many to criticize American education as "unfocused" and needed to return to the basics like math and science. This brought about the formation of the Council for Basic Education.

I feel a school curriculum should be based on science, reason and psychology as tools for self-realization. This would emphasize realism, of course, and also idealist courses. This implies that truth is found within personal experience. Discipline would stem from parents and teachers and would reflect their role in society. Consequence, or limits to behavior are crucial to forming a well-behaved and morally productive child. I don't believe in the "open education" approach because character development comes from hard work, not unstructured discovery. This open approach needs balance, as realists have said, and has its proper place in society.

Most importantly, a school needs to reflect the Constitutional amendment of separation of church and state. The opposite of religion is reason, more specifically, inductive reasoning. Human progress came about through proving particular matter as fact. And not by men like Aquinas who adopted pagan ingenuity while still parading around as a power-hungry man of God. Pagans should be pagans; Christians should act as Christians, not hypocrites. Alas, throughout history Christians have always "changed with the times" to keep their churches profitable. And the Pope and the word of God are supposed to be infallible.

ref. -"Philosophical Foundations of Education" by Ozmon and Craver, page 53.

(c) 2000. 2003 JDA/lca